Richard Harwell’s abridgment of Douglas Southall Freeman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 7-volume series on George Washington was published in 1968, fifteen years after Freeman’s death and eleven years after the series was completed by two of Freeman’s associates. Harwell was a librarian and historian who also abridged Freeman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 4-volume series on Robert E. Lee. Harwell died in 1988 at the age of 72.
Freeman’s original series on Washington was published between 1948 and 1957. Comprising seven volumes and about 3,600 pages, this is the most ambitious study of Washington that has been undertaken and compares to Dumas Malone’s series on Thomas Jefferson (1948-1981), Ray Stannard Baker’s series on Woodrow Wilson (1927-1939) and Robert Caro’s ongoing series of Lyndon Johnson (1982-). Given the length of Freeman’s series and the difficulty in obtaining each of the volumes, Harwell’s abridgment is the default choice for most readers seeking access to Freeman’s magisterial work.
While beginning this 754-page abridgment I also read much of the first volume of the series in order to understand the magnitude of Harwell’s task and measure his success. Immediately obvious is that while the first volume alone includes helpful chapter titles, numerous maps and illustrations and nearly 2,700 footnotes, Harwell’s abridgment contains no titles, no footnotes, no bibliography and proportionately fewer maps and illustrations. To his credit, however, Harwell’s narrative does seem to retain much of Freeman’s literary voice.
The paperback version of Richard Harwell’s abridgment I read contains an interesting Introduction by Michael Kammen as well as an insightful Editor’s Note by Harwell. The first volume of the underlying series, however, contains an even more compelling and lengthy introductory note by Freeman himself.
There is much to be admired about Harwell’s effort to economize Freeman’s series though some of the abridgment’s strengths undoubtedly reflect merits retained from the original volumes. But evaluating an abridgment is not the same as appraising the work from which it stems. And readers of this condensation will undoubtedly uncover many of the same flaws (whether unique to Harwell or carried over from the series) which I observed.
While this biography is an excellent review of Washington’s life and times – of events which happened in his immediate vicinity – it is not particularly useful in understanding the broader context of the era, the social scene or even Washington himself. Very little in these 25 chapters will provide the reader insight into his family life, much less his inner-self or his way of perceiving the world. The stone-faced hero remains enigmatic to the very end.
The facts-only style of the original series has been rigidly preserved as well, leaving the casual reader at extraordinary risk of becoming lost in a blizzard of detail within a narrative that generally lacks foreshadowing (in advance of important stretches) or concluding thoughts (to underscore salient points). Critical characters are rarely well-introduced and remain two-dimensional shadows; readers familiar with Adams, Hamilton and Jefferson will be hard pressed to find their vibrant personalities here.
The writing style is often clever and articulate, but also feels dated, stiff and dense with very little vibrancy or color. The biography’s best moments (such as Washington’s early months as Commander of the Continental Army or the crossing of the Delaware River and ensuing Battle of Trenton) are very good. But, more often than not, the narrative possesses the charm of a tax audit. Finally, serious history enthusiasts will find the lack of notes and bibliography unacceptable.
Overall, Richard Harwell’s abridgment provides its audience with a seemingly faithful and remarkably efficient summary of Douglas Southall Freeman’s groundbreaking series on George Washington. Harwell’s condensation is both impressive in aim and admirable in outcome. But it is of little use to the serious historian/scholar and most readers will find it disappointing compared to the very best biographies of George Washington.
Overall rating: 3 stars